City of Laughter: Sex and Satire
Review By Cheryl Bolen
City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London
Walker & Company, New York, 2006
696 pages, $45
British historian Vic Gatrell is the first scholar to ever
comprehensively study eighteenth-century satirical prints, and the
result is this stunning, high-quality book of nearly 700 pages and 289
illustrations, many of which have never before been reprinted.
Three factors explain why historians had neglected the study of
these satirical prints. First, they were scattered in various
collections and libraries throughout the world, including Yale
University, making them difficult to access. Secondly, the bawdy subject
matter could be offensive to many. Lastly, according to Gatrell, "comic
art is undervalued."
Between 1770 and 1830 some 20,000 satirical or humorous engravings
were published in London's print shops. The three most prominent artists
(whom we think of as caricaturists) were, chronologically, James Gillray
(1756-1815), Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827), and George Cruikshank
Because these dealt with politics, international affairs, and
scandals and satire of London's social elite, those who figured in the
graphic satire and those who flocked to the print shops to purchase them
for a shilling or more came from the middle and upper class.
Gatrell uses the 60-year era of graphic satire to show that before
the Victorian era, London was a city of sex and laughter.
And, man, how these illustrations show it!
Since many of the social situations which inspired these satirical
illustrations are unknown to most of us, Gatrell has kindly provided
text to explain the background. His research and knowledge of Georgian
London are astonishing.
These 700 pages are crammed with interesting tidbits. Some
Bachelor Prime Minister Pitt (the younger)
"was stiff to everyone except a woman."
Public hangings were moved from Tyburn to
the gate of Newgate prison in 1783.
Piccadilly was the first street to be lit
by gas—in 1809.
Sedan chairs did not go out of fashion
Women wearing powdered wigs washed their
heads every three months.
Bagnios (public baths/brothels) were
located in the Charing Cross area near Charles I's statue.
Doors to Haymarket opened at five.
Drury Lane boxes cost 5 shillings, and
upper gallery seats could be had for a shilling.
Because the artists slightly changed the actual names or omitted
letters, the artists and printers did not get sued.
One print, for example, shows Lady Worsley washing her naked body
in the bathhouse at Maidstone while her husband, Sir Richard Worsley,
stands outside, hoisting a man up to the small window near the roof to
get a peek. The story goes that Sir Richard tapped on the bathhouse door
to notify his wife he was going to give Bissett a peek. Apparently, Sir
Richard was an accomplice in his wife's many adulteries. The text on the
Sir Richard Worse-than-Sly, Exposing his Wife's Bottom – O Fye!
Many of the illustrators accepted bribes. George Cruikshank (whose
father, Isaac, was also a noted caricaturist) accepted £100 from the
regent to strop satirizing him. Gillray earned a £200 annual pension
from George Canning in 1797 to produce propaganda against the Foxite
"Bums, Farts, and Other Transgressions" is the title of one of the
chapters. If you ever wondered how to illustrate a fart, this is the
book for you. Part of another chapter on libertines deals with the
erotica Rowland illustrated from 1790 until 1810. Some of the erotica is
truly graphic, even pornographic, except Gatrell explains that because
they are humorous they do not meet the criteria for pornography.
(Warning: Keep book out of reach of young children.)
Some of Rowlandson's erotica was costly to purchase and was prized
by wealthier Londoners. These prints were also shared with women.
London in Regency times was the richest and most economically
dynamic city in the world, and its residents were undoubtedly the most
Of the couple of hundred Regency research books in my library,
this volume will nowrise to the top five in breadth of knowledge
I was uncommonly lucky to find it at Edward Hamilton for
$7.95—which included postage! As heavy as the book is, shipping cost
must have neared $5. My good fortune, sadly, came at others' incredible
loss. The book must have been remaindered by the publisher.
And they say sex sells.
This article was
first published in The Quizzing Glass in May 2011.